October 12th, 2013
I listened to a CD of the first Nirvana album in the car a few days ago. Mostly, I listened to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” repeatedly. The song isn’t particularly melodic, nor are the lyrics very coherent. However, it is a song full of the raw energy of youth, and it reminds me so much of Stefan.
Stefan is our youngest son. A few years ago, when he was fifteen, Stefan wanted to learn how to play guitar. We bought him an electric guitar, and later we bought him an acoustic one. When we purchased the acoustic model, I bought myself a bass. I wanted to play music with Stefan, but I didn’t want to compete with him. I suggested a couple songs that we could learn, but Stefan didn’t like any of them. So, I finally asked him what he wanted to play.
This brings us back to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. I’m not exactly sure why that song appealed to Stefan. It was already old when he first heard it. Perhaps he just wanted to start with a classic. The structure of the song is simple to the point of crudeness, and that makes it remarkably easy to learn. The bass part certainly is very straight forward. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is like a musical infection. Once the tune is in your head, it is difficult to let it go again. The song requires more passion than skill, and it encourages the guitarist to be fast and loud. In short, it is a perfect song for an adolescent, and for his father.
Stefan and I played music together for a while. We tried “Come as You are” and “Purple Haze”. Then other things attracted Stefan’s attention, like girls and cars. His guitar gathered dust, and I played the bass on my own in a halfhearted manner. I wanted to play with him, but I wasn’t going to force it. Eventually, the time would come.
This spring Stefan landed a job down in Texas. He found out that he had the job on a Thursday and he planned on being in the Lone Star State within three days. I told Stefan that, before he left, I wanted to play guitar with him. I told him that I wanted to go to my friend’s house where we could record a couple songs. Randy, my guitarist buddy, has his basement set up for recording music. Stefan agreed to play with me, and we spent an hour fitfully trying to make something listenable. Randy grabbed his guitar and played along with us. The hour was both frustrating and funny.
Stefan moved away. A few months later, Randy gave me a CD of the recording he had made of our jam session. It was about thirty minutes long. I was hesitant to listen to it at first, because I thought it might be pretty bad. It wasn’t.
The recording sounded like three guys at an impromptu rehearsal. It was raw and messy. There were a lot of false starts, and swearing, and dissonance. There was also laughter, and sounds that magically harmonized. We did a version of “Hey Joe” that would have made Jimi Hendrix cringe, but it was alive and fresh and earnest.
We played a Stefan composition at the end of the jam. That song went on for a solid ten minutes. The bass part consisted of four notes played entirely on the E string, and it was repeated endlessly. Stefan and Randy improvised their parts. One of them would play along with me, and the other would let his imagination run wild. Randy’s guitar had a clanging sound to it, and Stefan’s guitar sounded warm and tangy. Stefan’s guitar reminds me of barbecue. If barbecued ribs were music, they would sound like Stefan playing his guitar.
I have never regretted playing the bass line, or maybe I should say “base line”. It was redundant and boring at times, but I was able to provide stability to the melodies of Randy and Stefan. No matter where they roamed, they could come back to the rhythm section. Sometimes, I was on my own, and sometimes they were right there with me. It was beautiful.
A father should play bass. A father can provide a platform for the musical flight of his children. The lower notes and the rhythm are reassuring. They sound like home.